Looking at the urban social history of Accra through the singular Oxford Street, part of the city’s most vibrant and globalized commercial district.
The news caused ripples on ghanaweb.com, the Ghanaian website that carries information and news on the country for both locals and those abroad. Ghanaweb posted an item from The New York Times listing Accra as the fourth most desirable destination out of forty-six places surveyed for 2013. Accra came hard on the heels of Rio de Janeiro (who would dare compete with Rio anyway?), Marseilles, and Nicaragua, respectively. There were six accompanying pictures to the write-up on the charms of the city, two of which were taken on Oxford Street. Though brief, the write-up done by Karen Leigh was quite suggestive:
Accra, the capital of Ghana, has welcomed business travelers for years. Now tourists are streaming in, a by-product of the fact that the country has Africa’s fastest-growing economy and is also one of its safest destinations. The Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel (with poolside bar and waiters on roller skates) opened in 2011, and the Marriott Accra— the chain’s first sub-Saharan offering— will feature a casino and upscale shopping when it opens in the spring. On Accra’s packed beaches, you’ll see everything from snake handlers to plantain peddlers. Head to the upscale neighborhood of Osu and hit the treehouse-inspired terrace at Buka for fine West African food. The best Ghanaian adventures start with a giant plate of tomato-smothered tilapia and banku—a fermented yeast paste that’s tastier than it sounds—washed down with local Star beer.
Accra Airport City Skyline / Photo by Kwasiog, Wikimedia Commons
What this confirms is something long known to casual observers: Accra has been a favored destination for students for well over two decades now. And over the past ten years almost every major American university has sent its students on various programs to Ghana; these include Harvard, Michigan, Rutgers, and Colorado, to name just a few. The nine-campus University of California system has been running year-abroad programs in the country since the early 1990s while NYU has gone beyond all others to buy a large property that plays host to regular cohorts of students and professors from their campus in New York. That Accra has now been declared a favored tourist destination by the New York Times may be read in a variety of ways, not all of them necessarily positive. For the Accra of tourist consumption is one that may only succeed on satisfaction of the immediate demands of leisure (classy hotels, casinos, fine shopping, and the neighborhood of Osu being proffered as exemplary in this regard). Since the story of its evolution from a small fishing village through a colonial port town and into the large and bustling city we find today is very rarely told either in tourist guides or in the various government promotional documents, this means that Accra is packaged through the scaled-down impressionisms of cosmopolitan consumption. The city’s history is told piecemeal, and in such a way as to make it amenable to incorporation into a series of discourses: developmentalist, Pan-Africanist, popular cultural, and now as a favored tourist destination. The retelling of Accra’s story from a more expansive urban historical perspective is the object of Oxford Street.
Space provides the overall organizing principle for this book. I shall retell the urban social history of Accra from the vantage point of the singular Oxford Street, part of the city’s most vibrant and globalized commercial district. I hope to trace the history of this lively commercial district and to link it to different spatial ecologies that were generated by colonial and postindependence town and urban planning for the city, alongside the transformations that have been wrought by the processes of transnationalism and globalization. The varying planning systems that have shaped the city and been amply augmented by the effects of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s mandated by the International Monetary Fund prepared the way for the conversion of what was until the early 1990s largely a residential neighborhood into the high-intensity commercial district that we find in Oxford Street today. The high street shopping experience replicated elsewhere in the world is in this instance coupled to economic inequalities that are encoded within the very spatial arrangements of the streetscape itself. Oxford Street’s variation on the high street thematic will be central to our concerns, as will the ways in which this emblematic street reveals a microcosm of larger historical and urban pro cesses that have transformed Accra’s urbanscape into the variegated and contradictory metropolis we find today.
Space, it might be said with no sense of irony, is a problem of no mean proportions. For it seems to have a brute obviousness and yet once examined defeats all efforts at simple conceptualization. And once we reflect on urban space, or any social space for that matter, we find that although space gives the impression of being a mere container, its dimensions are in fact produced by what it contains, while it also (re)configures and (re)arranges the contained elements. Thus the built environment of roads, railways, and buildings as well as the bureaucratic apparatus that brings all these elements together instigates social relationships that are in turn progressively redefined as people interact with their built environment. None of these observations are new or indeed original. For Phil Cohen, the quarrel over cities has been between “those who see the city primarily as a material infrastructure for accommodating a diversity of social functions, and those for whom it is essentially a space of repre sen ta tion for imagining and regulating the body politic.” And, as Doreen Massey and other Marxian theorists of space have taught us, the two dimensions noted by Cohen are mutually reinforcing as nodal points for understanding the manner in which space becomes both symptom and producer of social relations.
Kibera urban slums / Photo by genvessel, Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to urban Africa the dual quality of urban space instigates a number of further layers of significance because of the general urgency with which questions pertaining to cities are framed. If we take African urban slums as a test case of such debates, we find that the space-as-material infrastructure orientation undergirds an array of policy interventions launched by government agencies, urban planners, and multinational organizations. This orientation is particularly evident in the array of resettlement schemes, programs for slum upgrades, or clearance or infrastructural repair that regularly get rolled out. The relationship between slums and other neighborhoods or districts in the city is couched predominantly in the discourses of public health, labor economics, and law and order. These interventions are by no means devoid of interest in the people living in the slums themselves—quite the opposite. For by targeting various dimensions of the urban spatial container, these interventions are also keen on reconfiguring the character of social relations that lie within the slum and that exist between the slum and the city in general. Such programmatic interventions defi ne two apparently opposed attitudes, one that conceives of the African city as the case study of unmitigated crises and the other that sees it as the arena of dormant potentialities. Yet, as Ananya Roy notes in her trenchant critique of both types of policy responses, the inherent contradiction lies in seeing slums as essentially located at a spatial remove from what is assumed to be normative urban relations, rather than seeing slum inhabitation as a form of urban informality and directly constitutive of urbanism as such. Garth Myers, Abdou Maliq Simone, Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall, Filip De Boeck, Margaret Plissart, and Roy herself represent a new breed of Africanist urban scholarship that has not only adopted a bottom-up approach to discussions of Third World cities but adroitly combines this with creative interdisciplinary perspectives.
Notwithstanding the innovative insights evident in the new urban scholarship on Africa, the bottom-up approach is itself not devoid of problems. The problems involve, first, the discursive creation of a “top” consisting of planners, governmental agencies, and international organizations that is then set against a “bottom” of ordinary people. The binary opposition between bottom and top suggests an understandable and in fact necessary critical discourse, but it also generates the necessity of keeping this template intact, which in turn leads to a number of distortions and skewed conceptualizations. The second problem, which follows directly from the first, comes from the procedures by which urban theorists extract observations from the materials at their disposal. Of the theorists just mentioned, Simone seems to me to be at once the most suggestive and yet, by the same token, also the most elusive. He has the telling advantage of not only having worked and lived in many of the cities he writes about (Jakarta, Dakar, Douala, Johannesburg, New York, etc.) but also of being a magnificent storyteller and thus able to extract great nuance and significance from ordinary incidents and encounters. First in For the City Yet to Come (2004) and more recently in City Life from Jakarta to Dakar (2009), he lays out a highly stimulating mode for interpreting cities in the developing world. In City Life he proffers the concept of “cityness” to account for the various ways in which cities are inhabited by different people and, perhaps more important, the ways in which cities provide opportunities for experiencing relationships of all kinds, many of which are not anticipated either by city dwellers themselves or by the regulatory mechanisms of urban-planning institutions. This concept echoes somewhat Doreen Massey’s idea that chance encounters are intrinsic to spatiality. As she puts it, it is “in happenstance juxtaposition, in the unforeseen tearing apart, in the internal irruption, in the impossibility of closure, in the finding of yourself next door to alterity, in precisely that possibility of being surprised. . . that the chance of space is to be found” (2005, 8, 116).
Additionally for Simone, the creative surprise of urban inhabitation derives first and foremost from the peripheries, both in terms of urban spatial peripheries (such as slums) but also in terms of the elusive subalternity inherent to spaces that intermesh modes of formality and informality, sometimes at different times of day (such as in the magnificent example he gives of the activities of trade, organization, and even prayer in Lagos’s Oju-Elegba neighborhood in the nighttime). In his account peripheralness is celebrated at various levels as the defining characteristic of cityness. However, to conceptually ground this assertion Simone is obliged to typify the managerial class of town planners as somehow either utterly counter to subaltern sensibility or perhaps even actively working toward placing constraints upon it. Thus he is able to assert:
Cityness refers to the city as a thing in the making. No matter how hard analysts and policymakers try, practices of inhabiting the city are so diverse and change so quickly that they cannot easily be channeled into clearly defined uses of space and resources or patterns of social interchange. (2009, 3)
. . . .
We can then pay attention to how best to calibrate relations among people, places, institutions, responsibilities, economic activities, and social functions through more profi cient forms and practices of urban governance. These calibrations are structured according to law, policy, and specific ideas about norms, efficiency, and justice. But they are also subject to relations of power. Here, specific individuals and institutions use the uncertainties incumbent in urban life and the need of most residents to have a sense of order as occasions to accumulate the material and symbolic resources that are used to exercise authority over how relations are made. (2009, 6)
Oju-Elegba neighborhood of Lagos, Creative Commons
The first quotation implies that the diversity and rapid change of urban inhabitation are such as to continually defeat the objectives of urban planners to regulate or direct them, while the second calls both for prolific forms of urban governance yet suggests that urban governance harbors a dirty secret of power and hegemony, but here denominated in their avatars of material distribution of resources and social management. Simone inadvertently conveys the sense of a historical hypostasis, setting up an opposition between the people and those that seem to want to have the better of them. Since he does not historicize the emergence of cityness and its variant transformations, it seems that for Simone the periphery is both elevated beyond temporality and yet also fi rmly entrenched within it, for otherwise how would we be able to imagine a diff erent future for the urban dispossessed?
One central weakness of Simone’s mode of argumentation in general is that while his anecdotes are rich in insights, he does not provide enough examples to ground the highly suggestive theorizations. The lack of specificity and the fine distinctions that one hopes to have been established in the comparative framing of African and Southeast Asian cities means we sometimes strive in vain to align his conceptualizations to particular configurations in the two regions. Thus, while his general propositions might, for example, be alluring to anyone who has worked on African cities and been frustrated at the gross insensitivities and frank crassness behind many urban-planning policies, his overall process of argumentation obscures the relations of complicity and overlap between top and bottom that have constituted the African city. This contradiction becomes especially evident when we extend our view of the African city to include the colonial period. As we shall see with respect to Accra, while it is an incontrovertible fact that the British colonial authorities established spatial patterns for the city that were predominantly to serve their own interests, the intra- and interethnic relations among Ga indigenes of the city and their out-of-town counterparts from other parts of the country meant that contests over who owned the city were regularly defined along lines of autochthony, primogeniture, and first arrival, thus producing various hierarchical relations that were in turn exploited by the colonial administration. For Accra top and bottom, core and periphery occupied elusive locations when it came to struggles over urban space. Pointing out the complex nature of local hierarchies does not obviate the criticisms we might make of colonialism; but it also suggests that the problems inherent to African cities come from much more complex historical sources.
A particular difficulty that I felt while researching this book was the lack of good quality information on Accra; this difficulty seems to apply in the case of most cities in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding perhaps South Africa. A passage from Amma Darko’s Faceless (which I will discuss extensively in chapter 7) provides an unerring picture of what it takes to research the city:
A lady journalist friend of mine was looking for information about the evolution of an Accra area to its present state. She thought it should be available at the Greater Accra Regional office. It wasn’t. She was referred to the National Archives. There, she was given a little insight and was sent off to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly. They in turn referred her to their Sub Metro office. She was told there that in fact that information was not properly documented. However, one of their employees was very knowledgeable about it and could provide it orally. Unfortunately though, he was indisposed. Could she come back when the employee was well? No, she told them. She needed the information right away. So she was advised to try the Department of Town and Country Planning. She did. And was told she could get that information only at either the Accra Metropolitan Assembly or the Regional office. She saved the energy she would have used to explain to them that she had already been to those two offices. Instead she wailed for help into the passing winds. Someone out there heard her cry and sent her packing to an informal but very reliable source: two old ladies living at British Accra. They proved to be a fine pair of human libraries. (Darko 2003, 104–105)
Whereas Darko’s journalist arrives at the crucial informal oral sources for the history of the city only at the very end of her labyrinthine quest, this is in fact a research resource that urban scholars of Africa are obliged to acknowledge and incorporate from the beginning. And the path of frustration often rewards a painstaking ethnographic sensibility, which also means that serendipity is as integral to research on the African city as lengthy hours in the archives. I began research for Oxford Street in 2003. Over the past decade this has involved administering over 250 questionnaires; conducting dozens of interviews with city planners, shop owners, wayside hawkers, members of neighborhood exercise gyms and keep-fit clubs, salseros and salseras, artists, photographers, tv and radio presenters; as well as interrogating friends, family, and even startled pedestrians about their impressions of the city. The research has also involved poring through thousands of pages of archival documents from the Public Records Office and the British Library in London and from Ghana’s National Archives holdings in Accra, Kumasi, Cape Coast, and Tamale. Over four thousand photographs of the city taken each summer since 2003, two short films of Oxford Street that I commissioned in 2006 and 2010, and the rushes for two full seasons of the tv soap Oxford Street that ran on gtv and tv3 in 2010 and 2011 have provided a wealth of still and moving images of the changing landscapes of the city. And yet, even after all these efforts and resources there are still many questions that remain unanswered for me as a scholar of the city. Hence even though many of my observations come from years of both oral and archival research, there are still large segments that have had to be filled in through creative speculation. This means that Oxford Street is proffered as a fertile, if somewhat provisional starting point for further work on the city, rather than as a comprehensive statement about its past, present, and possible futures.
Improvisational Characteristics of an Urban Fragment
The Oxford Street in Accra / Photo by MinaLegend, Wikimedia Commons
We are now obliged to walk the walk, in a manner of speaking, and take a stroll down Oxford Street. The name Oxford Street is partly an improvisation and chimerical projection of popular desire, for it is not the real name of the street that will be of concern to us in this study. It does not appear on any official maps of Accra. The source of the moniker is somewhat obscure, but seems to have been popularized after the return to the country of exiled Ghanaians from various parts of the world, but especially from London following the end of military rule and the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1992. As we shall see at various points in Oxford Street, the interest of returning political exiles turns out to have been symptomatic of the larger interests of global capital as well, since this strip of the much longer Cantonments Road had all the situational advantages that made of it a highly sought-after commercial corridor. Oxford Street is the roughly mile and a half of Cantonments Road that stretches between Mark Cofie to the south to Danquah Circle to the north. Cantonments Road itself extends from the Osure area and, merging with 2nd Circular Road, joins Airport Road to form a crucial southnorth axis connecting Labone and Cantonments, all of which are among the most prized areas in the city that since the colonial period have been the favored residential neighborhoods of the ruling elites and their satellites. A few miles to the east and west of Cantonments Road are other prestigious neighborhoods such as Ringway Estates, Ridge, and Kanda and Nyaniba Estates, all of which provide a steady stream of well-heeled shoppers to the street. Significant also in the evolution and continuing vitality of its commercial character is its relative proximity to government buildings such as the State House, the Kwame Nkrumah Conference Centre, the Accra Sports Stadium, and the Ministries, all roughly within two miles of Oxford Street. Completed in 1924, the area popularly known as the Ministries contains the headquarters of all government departments. Combined with the upwardly mobile neighborhoods, the street is thus fed day and night by governmental and residential tributaries from every direction. This is what lends Oxford Street the buzz of a twenty-four-hour hub of commercial and leisure activity despite the fact that it is not actually the most densely populated commercial part of town. As we shall come to see later, this distinction is still reserved for Makola Market and the Central Business District, some three miles to the west of Oxford Street. The farther south one goes along Cantonments Road and its connecting streets, the closer one gets to the sea and, more important, to Christiansborg Castle, the seat of government since 1877.
On entering Oxford Street from the north end (that is, from Danquah Circle; see map I.1 and map I.2), one is struck by how crowded it looks, with both vehicles and people, many large commercial buildings, and a proliferation of large-size billboards advertising everything from cell phone company products (mtn : “Everywhere You Go”; tigo : “Express Yourself ”) to the services of the United Emirates Airlines; from Nescafé to sanitary pads; and from the Nigerian Ovation magazine to DStv with the face of Jennifer Lopez staring coyly from the billboard. To enter the street is also to be confronted by a range of features that are recognizable from high streets elsewhere in the world and yet are marked here by a mix of decidedly local characteristics. Your regular banks sit cheek by jowl alongside vendors of soccer paraphernalia, which proliferate exponentially during the years in which Ghana participates in international soccer tournaments such as the World Cup or the African Cup of Nations competition. Papaye, the local fast-food giant, has to contend with the vendor promising the exact same chicken-and-fried-rice-with-Coke combo right across the street from it, with the added enticement of a ghetto blaster with full-on Bob Marley music to accompany your food, while Woodin (retailer of beautiful print cloths) contends with “already-made” (i.e., pre-sewn) variants of dresses and shirts made from the same print cloths but available for much cheaper off the street vendors. Electronic-goods stores abound, as do jewelry shops, along with the offices of all the major cell phone companies such as Airtel, mtn, Glo, and Tigo. Koala, a grocery store to rival Trader Joe’s, Sainsbury’s, or Loblaws, is also on Oxford Street, while the huge edifice to American fast-food retailing that is KFC opened in September 2011 to add a further transnational dimension to the food offerings on the street. Several large Chinese and other high-end restaurants, Internet cafés, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, Forex bureaus, and a large and luscious Italian-themed ice cream parlor make of this commercial stretch a visitor’s dream and the local dispossessed’s mouthwatering nightmare. On adjoining streets and byways off Oxford Street and within a roughly five-hundred-meter radius are various embassies and high commissions, the Goethe Cultural Institute, and Ryan’s, reputed to be the best Irish pub outside Dublin, along with several other such watering holes and dance venues. And since at least the summer of 2006 a mega-size television screen has been permanently mounted in front of the Osu Food Court, streaming live tv advertisements and reality shows such as Big Brother Africa on a twenty-four-hour continuous loop.
Any temptation to see Oxford Street as a postmodern transnational commercial boulevard is, however, quickly to be tempered by the many signs of cultural phenomena that reach back several generations and some of which may be seen replicated in varying forms here as well as in different parts of the city and indeed in other urban areas across the country at large: the young man selling fresh coconuts whose skill for discerning the tenderness or hardness of the inside of the fruit before deftly splitting off the crown with his cutlass seems purely esoteric; the woman who sells ripe plantains roasted over a slow charcoal fire under a tree on the lively curbside corner (for good strategic reasons trees and curbside corners feature prominently in the life cycle of roasted plantains); the female hawkers nonchalantly walking along with their wares balanced on their heads but without the prop of hands and selling things as varied as ice-cold water, or oranges, or roasted peanuts, or even charcoal, smoked fish, onions, chilies, and cassava and plantain for the evening’s fufu. One or two of these women may even have a young child strapped to their back. These variant features bring the mix of businesses and vendors on the street much closer to commercial districts in other parts of the city such as Makola, Kaneshie Market, Dansoman High Street, or Spintex Road, all of which are veritable beehives of commercial activity with their own distinctive characteristics.
Views of Moscow, 1926 / Public Domain
Apart from its name and the many businesses to be found along the street, however, the most visible yet unassuming dimension of the peculiar character of Oxford Street is actually to be experienced beneath one’s feet, that is, upon the sidewalk itself. On December 18, 1926, Walter Benjamin writes in his Moscow Diary: “It has been observed that pedestrians [in Moscow] walk in ‘zigzags.’ This is simply on account of the overcrowding of the narrow sidewalks; nowhere else except here and there in Naples do you find sidewalks this narrow. This gives Moscow a provincial air, or rather the character of an improvised metropolis that has fallen into place overnight” (Benjamin  2002, 31). Even though Oxford Street cannot be said to have materialized overnight from the sky, it is true that here, too, one is forced to walk in zigzags. But this is not merely due to the narrowness of the sidewalk. For the Oxford Street sidewalk is marked first and foremost by its almost determined evanescence as a sidewalk (i.e., it looks anything but a sidewalk), and the fact that the distinction between it and the tarmac roadway itself is practically obliterated. One reason why the sidewalk does not look or feel like one is that as Oxford Street evolved into the high-energy commercial street that it is today, the sidewalk progressively became not the broad strip specifically designed for pedestrians to traverse but merely the stripped-down extension of the interior of the many commercial enterprises along the street.
Thus the sidewalk in front of various businesses on Oxford Street is taken over by them, either for customer parking extending from demarcated parking areas (in front of Frankie’s or Ecobank, for example), or simply for the sprawl onto the sidewalk of manufactured goods, such as in the case of the many electronic, hardware, and bicycle stores along both sides of the street. The colonization of the sidewalk by commerce from shops and stores is augmented by the presence of vendors of various kinds, both itinerant and stationary.
The items that vendors peddle vary: secondhand clothes, bags and shoes (popularly known as obroni wa wu, or “the white man is dead”); fruits of all vintage, but with fresh mango, papaya, and pineapple to be peeled, sliced, or diced up on the spot; Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Fanta in blue ice buckets; red snapper caught fresh from the sea that is sold by women at the seashore but along Oxford Street is mongered by young men with connections to fishing communities. Pushcarts with various goods abound, and there are also vendors of newly manufactured products covering everything from dog chains and flashlights to soccer balls, shoe polish, toothpicks, vibrators, and Time magazine.
Cars and pedestrians mix freely on the roadway itself. Even though the sidewalk is demarcated from the tarred roadway by the notorious and practically ubiquitous open-sewage gutter, the sidewalk and the road remain at an uneven height (i.e., while the sidewalk is supposed to be raised some four or five inches above the roadway it is actually for long stretches at par with it on both sides of the street). To walk along Oxford Street is also to be constantly invited to pause and look at things: not in the manner by which shop windows in commercial boulevards elsewhere pose various enticements for the pedestrian to stop, take a quick cosmetic look at their reflection in the glass, and perhaps enter the store (the window displays performing the function of whetting your desire and inducing a crossing of the boundary between inside and outside), but rather by the constant barrage of vendors of all manner of goods vying to make a sale. The invitations to treat, to use a well-known phrase in commercial law, are only an irritation if one is actually in a hurry to get to a fixed destination. If not, the invitations to treat proffered by vendors on Oxford Street may open up into varied kinds of culturally saturated modes of haggling and bargaining, with jokes, teasing, and overall good humor thrown in for good measure. There is a distinctly carnivalesque quality to this aspect of the street. But this also means that the character of walking on Oxford Street and the human interactions one has on it are very different from that of commercial streets elsewhere, in London, or Singapore, or Johannesburg, to cite but three contrasting examples.
Aerial view of Accra / Photo by Kwasiog, Wikimedia Commons
Since, as we have seen, much of the length of the sidewalks on both sides of the street has been taken over by businesses and vendors, and cars have no monopoly over the roadway, the experience of walking along Oxford Street involves a lot of zigzagging, moving off and onto the sidewalk or roadway with the negotiation of one’s peregrinations amid various kinds of vehicles, vendors, goods, and pedestrians as convenience and inclination dictate. The walk on Oxford Street, as in many parts of Accra, is thus an object of improvisation. (I have also spent many fine hours watching how people walk on the street: the gentle swagger led by the left shoulder slightly tilting the body to one side, the constant “flexing” with cell phones, and the bemusement and otherwise irritated hurrying-to-get-somewhere-yet-being-constantly-interrupted quality of walking. With the proliferation of mp3 players, iPods, and their attendant earplugs, there is also a dimension of distractedness that is introduced into people’s gait. Yet oddly enough, listening to something else while walking on the street is not very common; the street demands attention in a way that does not allow zoning out of its ambient sounds. Oxford Street proffers a form of sensorial totality that is only unpleasant if you go against the flow of its multimodal sensory offerings.) If there is a performative dimension to the street it is not to be mistaken for the performativity of occasional theatrical and po liti cal events, such as the annual December carnival, or the spontaneous outpourings of jubilation whenever Ghana makes strides in the international soccer tournaments it has had the unalloyed ecstasy to participate in. Rather, the character of walking on the street that has just been described exposes itself to the possibility of spontaneous “events” that themselves follow sets of performative scripts and reveal what we shall come to see as certain important spatial logics.
The messy interaction of pedestrians with other pedestrians, with pushcarts, with itinerant hawkers on the sidewalks, and with vehicles on the roadway means that misunderstandings regularly break out as to the proper courtesies of street use. These are not reducible to the ordinary road rage variety of misunderstandings. Insults may be quickly traded between pedestrian and pedestrian, pedestrian and hawker, pedestrian and motorist, or between one motorist and another. However, the traded insults turn out to be an important aspect of the intersection of spatiality and spectatoriality endemic to Accra’s street life, such that the ultimate fact of seeing and being seen translates everything in the heated altercation into the display of the mastery of unstated yet critical cultural codes of rhetoric and delivery. Reference to various parts of the human anatomy and its effusions proliferate in such exchanges, but the hyperinflation of the body is not the real point of the scatological insults. What is crucial is to produce a memorable twist on a known theme or themes both to show superiority over your opponent and to raise a laugh from casual observers who will quickly have gathered to enjoy a spot of spontaneous street theatre. Rhetorical mastery may involve the clever deployment of local language proverbs, but not exclusively.
My favorite of the many I have witnessed? A taxi driver is speeding toward a zebra crossing and has to apply his brakes reluctantly, with tires screeching to let a bunch of pedestrians go across. They turn around and rain all manner of insults on him as they do so, to which he lustily retorts in Twi: “Hwe nyen ho tan tan bi, a se ngyamoa atɔ gya mu” (Look at all you nasty people, like a bunch of cats that have fallen into a fire!). To which there is general laughter, followed by more insults hurled at the fast-receding exhaust fumes of the cab. And yet the effectiveness of the driver’s insult and its memorable quality derive not so much from the mention of cats as to the domestic setting signaled by the reference to fire, something that would immediately invoke a traditional kitchen very well known to most denizens of Accra. Cats in a traditional kitchen evoke all kinds of chaotic scenarios, including the potential for loud din and total confusion in the tipping over of pots and pans, and perhaps of even the meal being cooked on the charcoal fire. The entire insult therefore combines implicit references to dishevelment, to chaos, and to improper and unpredictable behavior within a domestic setting, which then acts as a correlative of the confusion of the pedestrians who, in the driver’s opinion, do not even know how to negotiate the city’s streets. And this despite the fact that it is he who is patently in the wrong for rushing to whiz past the zebra crossing before the pedestrians could successfully navigate it. The implication from the driver’s insult then is that despite all appearances to the contrary, the zebra crossing does not in and of itself encompass the full protocols of how to cross a busy Accra street.
A similar observation can be made for motor vehicles negotiating Accra’s increasingly dense and frustrating traffic. For example, here the rules for cutting in front of another driver are highly complicated, but generally the object of tacit agreement by most drivers. The first principle when doing something you shouldn’t do is to absolutely avoid eye contact, and the second is to demonstrate determined intent, that is to say, to move your vehicle as if not afraid of hitting the other vehicle or being hit by it. Waving a quick thank-you after the maneuver must be rigorously observed, otherwise insults or road rage may quickly ensue. Taxi and tro-tro drivers are experts at this, and one is quickly enjoined to learn from them if one wants to survive the hectic density of Accra’s traffic.
Accra taxi / Photo by Cyria Gbogou, Wikimedia Commons
If the anecdote of the taxi driver’s insult gives the impression that those behind the wheels of motor vehicles are somehow at an advantage when it comes to such confrontations, this is quickly dispelled by other stories in which it is the pedestrian that has the last word. In one such instance, a lumbering and clearly much-exhausted market woman makes her way slowly down from the back of a wooden tro-tro (a popular passenger lorry, and the subject of chapter 4). The tro-tro driver honks his horn impatiently and begins to rain insults on her. Her response, in hoarse yet pinpoint Ga: “Okyε sɔ me, Adwoa Atta” (Your father’s vagina, Adwoa Atta!), to which the dumbstruck driver mumbles some incoherencies and promptly takes off. Loud laughter and wagging fingers follow him in his embarrassed exit from the scene, gearbox cranking and a splutter of protest emanating from the lorry’s startled engine. “Your mother’s vagina!” with the upraised right thumb pointing toward the object of your derision and deliberately wiggled up and down against the clenched fingers is one of the most common and ready insults in Accra. The insult may be translated into something like “your mother’s vagina birthed you for nothing, you useless person.” It is not uncommon to hear even a mother hurling this insult loudly at her own children, in which case the implication is that she has wasted her time giving birth to them. The twist in the woman’s hurled insult at the tro-tro driver turns first on suggesting that his father was not a “proper man” (he had a vagina instead of a penis) and second, that the driver should be embarrassed to have been born as only half a woman. Adwoa is the name for a girl born on Monday, while Atta refers to a twin, thus the reference to “Adwoa Atta” comically insinuates that the driver is somehow incomplete. The gender twists to the insult were not lost upon the listeners, because it also carried the suggestion that the driver was ultimately an anomaly, having been birthed by a man who was really a woman, and he himself appearing as nothing but half of a real woman.These compounded significations are then to be taken into account for the tro-tro driver’s monstrously rude behavior toward her, a proper, full-bodied,and uncompromising market woman.
In the definition of spatial practice that Henri Lefebvre proffers in The Production of Space (1992), the concept is both empirically observable and coincident with space as structured and regimented. For Lefebvre, the reproduction of social relations is central to spatial practice. As he notes: “The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly as surely as it masters and appropriates it, i.e., through the network of roads, motorways and the politicsof air transport” (1992, 38; italics added). The various verbs used in this formulation attribute to spatial practice a form of active agency, and Lefebvre adds that the form of space approximates to the moment of communication, and thus to the realm of the perceived. A number of implications may be extrapolated from Lefebvre’s comments: the first is that space as a concept acts upon space as it is experienced in the form of social relations. The dialectic of concept and social relations aligns Lefebvre’s notion of space to that of other Marxists such as Doreen Massey and David Harvey, but with the distinction that Lefebvre goes on to set up a triangular relationship between spatial practice, representational space, and represented space, such that each concept is automatically entailed in the others in complex and often elusive ways. An added implication of Lefebvre’s definition of spatial practice is that individual spaces are the localized instantiations of a larger spatial logic inherent to a given society. We must gloss this to mean that the dialectical interaction between concept and articulation must also have a specific cultural and historical character to it, thus enabling us to perceive subtle or epochal shifts in spatial practice as being correlated to an entire range of changes within a given society. Additionally, it may be interpreted to mean that even if the concept of space in a given society is historical it also veers toward hegemony, that is, that it procures acquiescence in social arrangements that are not always necessarily in the interests of those whoordinarily traverse space, but rather of those who want to naturalize a particular hierarchy of social relationships in each given epoch. Hegel is suggestedin the link Lefebvre makes between a hegemonic spatial logic and specific spaces as instantiations of that logic. But, as in the case of Simone that we saw earlier, Lefebvre does not fill out in detail what he means by the hegemony of spatial practice, leaving us to take it in different directions. The implication of social struggle built into his idea is only sporadically worked out by Lefebvre, but must be borne in mind in any deployment of the concept of spatial practice. Following on the implications of the historicity of spatial practice we noted earlier, we find concomitantly that space itself does not remain static but that it is also progressively transformed, first by the communicative character of the local instantiations of spatial practice, and second by the alterations in the overall technology of human interactions enabled by changes in the network of roads, motorways, and other means for the traversal of geographic space. We will have to add to Lefebvre’s technologies of interaction the social media that have also come to impact upon how people interpret themselves and their relations to others in an era of social networking. As Jenna Burrell (2012) has shown, in Ghana the inherently interpretative flexibility of the Internet has allowed it to materialize a space for selfmaking that involves both licit and illicit uses as well as an investment of the symbolic register of enchantment commonly associated with Christianity.
However, it is what Lefebvre writes about spatial practice as an approximation of the moment of communication that strikes a special chord with respect to the performative and highly eventful character of Oxford Street. The question to ask is, how do we define the moment of communication out of which we might extrapolate the spatial practice(s) of a place like Oxford Street? Such a moment of communication is to be taken in the form of a multilayered expressive fragment that is to be assumed to encapsulate a larger social totality. But our interpretation of the expressive fragment must be conducted carefully. The fact that unlike other streets in Accra, Oxford Street is lined on both sides by a phalanx of billboard advertisements large and small means that it can be creatively seen as at once a demarcated spatial theatre yet one that is also extraordinarily permeable in terms of the intersections of variant dramaturgies. At the highest register of articulation, then, all of Oxford Street may be taken as a geographically demarcated expressive fragment constituted by a number of common and distinct spatial and discursive features, some of which are nodal expressive fragments in and of themselves. To look at the evanescent sidewalk is to see a different vector of interpretative possibilities from what is implied in looking at the shopping to be had on the street, for instance. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet each starting point produces different emphases, the first a signal of urban planning crisis and the second a signifier of local entrepreneurial drive. Withthe proliferation of languages (Ga, Twi, pidgin, English, etc.) and discourses (those of billboard advertising, tro-tro inscriptions, etc.), our interpretation of such an expressive fragment may be made exclusively on the basis of sociolinguistic and discursive considerations, something that we shall indeed attempt in chapter 4. However, the expressivity of the fragment must not be limited solely to language and discourse but ultimately charged to the nature and variety of interpersonal interactions on the street. The interpersonal interactions manifest different dimensions of economy, culture, and society and their transformations through time. Language is thus only the entry point into a broader structure of multilayered levels and relations. It is out of the interactive multidimensionality of all such levels that we gain a sense of the spatial practice(s) to be seen on Oxford Street. The two anecdotes encountered earlier, far from connoting a breakdown of communication, rather divulge the character of spatial practice precisely manifested as a flashpoint of rhetorical intensity. In other words, such rhetorical flashpoints, coded at the simplest level as debates about the civilities of road use, are actually the points at which spatial practices reveal themselves.
Thus if we return to our two anecdotes, we find that the altercations were also simultaneously the attribution of social consensus upon the human interaction on the street. The idea of social consensus does not imply any direct notion of agreement but rather the recognizability of the interaction as being part of a normative social domain, that is to say, of the terms by which a moment on the street might be recognized as the product of specific sociocultural norms. But the sociocultural norms in this instance also instantiate a peculiarly spatial dimension, since it is the quarrel over the use of space (road use) that triggers the angry rhetorical exchanges in the primary instance. The normative social domain in the taxi-driver anecdote is generated specifically from the tacit understanding of the rules that govern the negotiation of zebra crossings and their distortion in the domain of usage, either by pedestrians or drivers. The taxi driver challenges the hegemony of the spatial practice signaled by the zebra crossing in his rude attempt to prevent the pedestrians from crossing safely and in the insult he delivers. For he is effectively suggesting that the formal protocols of a zebra crossing (whatcome together to constitute its langue, to take a leaf from structuralism) are not limited to or in this instance even coincident with the individual instantiations of such usage (the pedestrians’ or taxi driver’s parole), both of which of course are governed by the force of law and can trigger certain sanctions if contravened. Rather, we are encouraged to conclude from the rhetorical implicationsof the insult he delivers that the hegemonic and law-bound spatial practice in this instance also intersects with specifically cultural rules that include the terms of urban performativity, the main characteristic of which is the fact of seeing and being seen by a potential audience on the street. In other words, in this instance the discursive register of the formal rules of zebra crossings is intersected by a diff erent kind of register, whose protocols are those of a local urban performativity. Despite the appearance of being ad hoc, however, the protocols of urban performativity that irrupt in the quarrel between the taxi driver and the pedestrians are also the articulation of a spatial practice yet whose terms seem more fluid and negotiable because of their invocation of traditional rhetorical codes.
Thus we see two distinct forms of spatial practice intersecting in the taxi-driver anecdote: first is the universal rule-bound nature of how to negotiate a zebra crossing and second are the rules of participation in a colorful and culturally saturated altercation on the streets of Accra. Both categories of spatial practice interact regularly with each other on the streets but with the second actively and regularly distorting the protocols of the first at eventful conjunctures. Far from signaling the collapse of communication, the altercations signify the precise moments at which contradictory spatial practices are given articulation, and hence affirmed as both pertinent to the negotiation of space in Accra. (As an aside, the rhetorical devices that challenge the standard understandings of road usage are not limited to flashpoints of altercation; they are also commonly found in light banter between drivers, or even in tro- tro slogans. Thus “Zebra Crossing” may be found as a slogan on a tro-tro to remind road users of its potential assimilation into the expressive discourses and compositions of tro-tro sloganeering). With the anecdote of the lady and the tro-tro driver, on the other hand, a different set of spatial practices come into confrontation. At issue in that instance are not the protocols of road use, but rather those of the chivalrous relation between male and female, but here obscured in its articulation as the hierarchical relation between a tro-tro driver (exclusively male) and his female passenger. The driver’s rudeness may have been due to the authority assumed by controling the steering wheel of an automobile, an instrument of evident social power in the African urban domain. As we shall see in chapter 4, a passenger lorry that ferries customers between various destinations has been an instrument of great cultural prestige since at least the end of World War II, when the British administration introduced Bedford vehicles into the colony for the conveyance of both passengers and freight. What the woman does, then, is to completely invert all the available hierarchies that might be presumed to govern the relationship between driver and passenger and that have come to obscure the more foundational one between male and female. For the ultimate point of her insult is that the driver is ignorant of how to treat a woman on the streets of Accra. And if he thought that the mere fact of being a man gave him some sort of authority over her, she also whisks that away by letting him know that his father was not a proper man, and that he himself cannot even aspire to be a full woman. While what I have just described might be taken to confirm spatial practice in Lefebvre’s sense of the term, we can at the same time assert that his concept does not quite exhaust the communicative complexity of human interactions to be perceived on a place like Oxford Street, or indeed on similar streets in many parts of Africa. And yet what we have just discussed must not be seen as somehow providing the template of a demotic critique of hegemonic spatial practice, since the rhetorical irruptions are hardly if ever rationalized by anyone as direct challenges to such a hegemony. Rather it is precisely in the untheorized practices of everyday life (to recall de Certeau) that the challenge inheres. For no law or set of rules laid down by urban planners can legislate away the possibilityof altercations on Accra’s streets. And once such altercations break out they automatically trigger a particular performative logic that at once acknowledges the assumed acceptable protocols of road use while also undermining them through their incorporation into culturally coded rhetorical contests about what constitutes urban knowledge. I do not intend here to glorify haphazard and improper road use or to praise the culture of impunity and rudeness that may often be seen on display on the streets of the city, but rather, through the analysis of the apparently banal form of urban altercation, to clarify the significance of attending to such banalities as a means of understanding the status of spatial practice(s) in the context of Oxford Street and of Accra in general.
The Impact of Commercial Morphology on the Interactions on Oxford Street
A&C Shopping Mall in Accra, Creative Commons
The focal point of formal commercial activity on Oxford Street derives from the discursive authority attributed to the price tag. This is relevant to understanding what happens inside of the commercial enterprises on the street and helps to distinguish explicit norms of shopping behavior. As a general rule, the price tag performs the function of foreclosing the types of interactions between vendor and client to be seen outside on the street itself. If the shopping behavior outside is governed by modes of haggling and improvisation, what occurs inside the formal context of banks, restaurants, jewelry stores, and cell phone companies on Oxford Street is marked by what we may consign to formalized economic predication. Predication here bears the echo of one of its grammatical functions, namely, the quality of asserting or basing a statement upon a categorical foundation. The condition of formalized economic predication is grounded fundamentally on a tacit understanding of a particular logic that banishes chance, improvisation, or surprise from the shopping experience. This is because in formal commercial contexts the terms of the transaction are preset by the price tag. On Oxford Street the price tag signifies an implicit separation of economic practice from the kind of cultural logics that apply, say, in the anecdote of the taxidriver. Thus, whereas the purchase of fresh fish, or a soccer shirt, or a bunch of bananas off the street may be subject to forms of haggling that invoke sophisticated cultural repertoires, the transactions inside of a bank, jewelry store, or grocery shop, where everything bears a price tag (or in a restaurant,where the menu performs the same function), tend to produce an absolute predictability of roles that is diametrically opposed to what we find outside.This does not necessarily mean that economic transactions on the street do not follow a rational economic logic, but that that logic is so saturated by cultural forms of interaction that the cultural logic takes the place of the economic logic and converts all forms of economic decision making into a dimension of cultural competence. A good illustration of the culture-as-economy nexus is to be discerned in the arrangements for procuring credit from food and alcohol vendors on Oxford Street and in the city in general. These have been practiced for generations.
Studies show that an average of 32 percent of an Accra urban household’s budget is spent on prepared food bought from vendors on Accra’s streets,with the figure rising to 40 percent for poorer families.10 Much of the money spent is a mixture of direct payments and purchases on credit, with credit purchases being the preferred method in many instances. Food vendors and their clients often strike up varying relationships of trust grounded in an understanding of specifically cultural codes of conduct. The codes stipulate that the customer is not solely an object of economic negotiation but rather a total complex of cultural dispositions, some of which are directly pertinent to their being economic subjects in the first place (i.e., customers and clients). The arrangement for getting credit from food vendors turns on the management of intricate cultural codes for engendering and maintaining trust between vendor and buyer. Thus, for example, a roadside kenkey seller may have a long list of clients who buy her food on credit, and she will have to balance the purchases on credit from those based on cash in order to see her business succeed. The management of the kenkey turns out to be crucial for maintaining business longevity. Since there is no direct “collateral” to be placed by the buyer for the continuing extension of credit by the food vendor, what is given in exchange are stories of personal exigencies of various levels of intractability. These stories, often not devoid of self-deprecating humor and even sarcasm, then become a reservoir of disciplinary instruments in the hands of the food vendor. A. B. Crentsil’s famous hit from 1985, “Akpeteshie Seller Give Me Quarter,” captures this arrangement perfectly. The central premise of the song is the credit arrangement that pertains between the akpeteshie seller and a hapless alcoholic who comes to her with sad stories about his salary not carrying him till the end of the month and the untold diffi culties he encounters in paying his children’s school fees. These stories are lodged with her as a means of extracting more drink on credit. The song’s refrain—“Akpeteshie seller give me quarter [of a beer-size bottle], I go pay you tomorrow aaa-yay”—still remains commonplace in Ghanaian popular culture to this day. The stories that a hapless husband or wife lodges with the food seller may in given circumstances be readily put about by the food seller to create general humiliation for the debtor and as a dire warning to others that might be contemplating similar default. Even though it is not unknown for this to happen, the social embarrassment is so great that it is extremely rare that a buyer willfully fails to meet his or her debt obligations to a food or alcohol vendor. They would rather do a vanishing act until such time as they are able to clear their debts. And it is not unknown for roadside food vendors to suddenly recall an incident of failed payments after a long hiatus on seeing a client that owes them money. The extent and reach of such vendors’ memories and the range of information they are able to master without apparent recourse to any documentation is truly phenomenal.The relationship between food vendors and clients described here is not exclusive to Oxford Street; everywhere in Ghana’s towns and cities this relationship is completely commonplace. But the most noteworthy aspect of these interactions is that here predicative economic logic has been displaced or at least converted into an essential dimension of cultural logic. The normative rules that govern such interactions and credit arrangements are notreducible to pure economic categories but have to be understood as part of large and complex forms for establishing trusting relations that may originally have been instigated by cold predicative economic transactions. Thisis so because to build trust the customer has to be sure to make cash payments for several purchases before the credit arrangements are permitted. In other words the predicative economic logic is necessary for first “introducing”customer to vendor as viable economic subjects. It is only once that is established that the new cultural register of borrowing is allowed to kick in. And even when the customer’s fortunes change and they revert back to the predicative economic logic, the banter and camaraderie that are necessary ingredients of the cultural register may still be maintained. As noted earlier the predicative economic logic of the price tag or menu clearly obliterates such culturally nuanced possibilities inside the shops, restaurants, and other enterprises on Oxford Street in which they feature.
In each instance of formality or informality, distinct spatial practices come to bear upon the social relation implied in the commercial transaction.This seems so obvious to most people as to pass without notice. The differences between inside and outside, formal and informal, are tacitly understood to the point where few make the mistake of transferring the modalities of one domain into that of the other. Since Oxford Street is shaped by a heavy concentration of outfits governed by forms of economic predication existing side by side with the plethora of opportunities for improvisation,the dialectical interaction between formalism and improvisation comes to express a particular spatial configuration that serves to distinguish this particular street from other commercial districts in Accra. Purely on the basis of a crude count of enterprises on this street we are able to assert that the mix between the formal and informal leans in favor of the formal, giving Oxford Street the semblance of a largely Westernized high street. This is despite the fact that it is mainly associated with fast food and leisure activities in the popular imagination, rather than the clothes and shoe stores that are definitive of high streets in the West. Only foreigners or wealthy out of-towners would shop for clothes or shoes from Oxford Street. Most ordinary people would likely go to Makola Market to satisfy such shopping needs.
Makola Market, Creative Commons
Makola is also a high-intensity commercial district that shares many of the features of Oxford Street we have encountered, including the character of improvisation and of performative irruptions, except that at Makola pricetags do not appear in any of the many manufactured-goods stores that populate the market at every turn. Furthermore, as a market Makola requires one to traverse the maze of alleyways that define it, an experience quite different from that of walking on Oxford Street. At Makola one is allowed to haggle down the price of any of the goods on display, whether inside the small stores that populate the market and its local environment or at the multitude of vendors that peddle similar goods to those in the stores. (In fact at Makola it is common practice for store owners to give some of their goods to itinerant vendors to sell outside on the streets. This hardly ever happens on Oxford Street, partly because of the different and more expensive character of goods sold in the shops there, and partly because price tags command no status on the outside). The lack of price tags at Makola comes from its peculiar and colorful history. The market was first founded by the colonial government on the site of an open-air cattle grazing field in what was then the outskirts of Ga Mashie. Upon being built up from 1924 as the largest walled fresh food market in the growing town, shops and stalls erupted around it to make it the commercial nerve center of the Central Business District. By the time of the decolonization struggles of the 1940s and 1950s, Makola was considered the seat of women’s political organization, with Kwame Nkrumah drawing strong and effective support from the market women. Given that the original cattle herders formed a tightly knit community in what became a densely populated and culturally hybrid environment made up of varying waves of northern migrants and Yoruba traders from Nigeria, and waves of Hausa speakers from the Northern Territories, many of whom did not have the benefits of the colonial education system, the character of Makola was never allowed to be completely divested of its strong informality. This persisted even after its destruction in 1979 by the Rawlings regime, when the fresh food market was evacuated, bombed, and later turned into a car park. Its immediate environment was surrendered exclusively to commercial enterprises and shops. Fresh food had been concentrated in Makola No. 2, built in the 1950s to absorb the spillover from the original Makola and that by the 1970s had also become a bustling food market in its own right. No. 2 was not touched by Rawlings, and by the late 1980s the lively commercial activities that remained in that commercial district got centered at No. 2 and gradually helped to reenliven the entire Makola area and the Central Business District in general.
At Makola the distinction between informal commercial transactions on the street and the formalized routines that occur inside the shops and stores is completely blurred, whereas on Oxford Street the formal and informal remain sharply distinct. In the manufactured-goods shops on Oxford Street all of the merchandise carries a price tag; this is definitely not the case with the shops at Makola, where the prices of goods on display have to be ascertained orally from whoever (often women) keeps the shop. This provides ample opportunity for haggling, with all the consequent cultural rhetorical fluenciesthat are called into play. On the other hand, and in contrast to both Oxford Street and Makola, at the Accra Mall all shops and enterprises are governed by the exclusive principle of formalized economic predication (i.e., there is no room whatsoever for carnivalesque improvisation in the commercial transaction). Everything in every store, bookshop, or even food joint carries a price tag, with restaurants guaranteeing that there will be no improvisation by recourse to the expedient device of the printed menu, sometimes boldly displayed on the wall. This is no doubt a function of the fact that the mall is a completely self-enclosed shopping arcade, with the roof obliterating even the view of the sky above it. Modest in size though it is, the Accra Mall is a direct mimesis of the shopping experience of such malls elsewhere in the world, where the price performs the same function of obliterating improvisation and the carnivalesque.
On Rhythmanalysis: Time, Space, and the Thematics of an Urban Key
Taking his cue from music, Henri Lefebvre suggests in Rhythmanalysis (2004) that space and time share some fundamental rhythmic features in common. This goes beyond the standard idea of space being shaped from distinct temporalities in the way it is traversed. As he notes, music is produced from a configuration of reiterations (i.e., beats of different timbres, stresses, and durations), sequences (long-short followed by short-long or any combination of the previous two), and the spaces and pauses between them, again of different lengths. Spacing opens music up to measure(ment) and it is the finely tuned measures of music that allow us to differentiate that from simple noise. Once we grant that musicality derives from measures, and that musical measures depend upon both cyclicality and linearity, the analogy with space as read through the common ground of musical analogy becomes complete. As he notes: “Time and space, the cyclical and the linear, exert a reciprocal action: they measure themselves against one another; each one makes itself and is made a measuring-measure; everything is cyclical repetition through linear repetitions. A dialectical relation (unity in opposition) thus acquires meaning and import, which is to say, generality. One reaches, by this road as by others, the depth of the dialectic” (9).
Lefebvre’s conceptualization of space/time does not answer all the questions that might be posed to it. For example, how is space cyclical in the way we experience it if we traverse it in predictably straight lines, as in the daily repeated commute between home and work? And how do the reiterations of key features of geographic space such as trees, electric pylons, or even the horizon seen from different directions interpose themselves on our experience of the measurability of space, thus differentiating such measures from those of music?
As is quickly evident, the Lefebvre of Rhythmanalysis is quite different from the one of The Production of Space. Even though rhythmanalysis is ultimately also about understanding space as a product of social relations, as a method it suggests applications beyond the social. When Lefebvre lays out the outline of spatialized temporalities on the analogy with music, he is also admitting into view the question of perception and its modulation. For the musical analogy may also be taken as a statement on the structure of human perception in which the hearing of music is produced out of not just the reception of ordered sounds, but the commingling of those sounds into a matrix infused by memory, anticipation, and emotion. In other words, the measure of music is also a metronome of our emotional responses to it, and that is what allows it to be pleasant or unpleasant to the listener. Space, on the other hand, is populated both by objects, whether these objects be trees, pylons, and so forth, and the more labile and ephemeral human social interactions that also come to fundamentally define our experience of it. Thus there is a physical-cum-social interactional materiality to space that distinguishes it from the sonic (materialities?) of music. This requires that the rhythmanalytical logic and history of space be established differently from those of music. What I take from Lefebvre for the story of Accra I hope to provide in Oxford Street is that my account is as much subjective, personal, modular, and rhythmic as it is grounded in detailed observations of history and social relations. But the fact that it is subjective does not mean that it is private; quite the opposite. What I have sought to show in this introductory chapter, and will hope toreiterate incrementally in subsequent ones, is that urban space has an inherently rhythmic quality that can only be ascertained from modulating our perspectives along diverse vectors of interpretation, sometimes sequentially, but often also regulated by different forms of simultaneity.
Several spatial precepts thus inform Oxford Street. Part I, under the general rubric of “Horizontal Archaeologies,” takes for inspiration a central premise of the discipline of archaeology regarding the relations between parts and wholes unearthed by excavation and that have to be painstakingly pieced together by the archaeological interpreter of the past.11 This takes Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis in the direction of understanding the relationship between spatial dimensions (both material and sociologi cal) and the totality of which they are a part not by establishing modes of measurement beforehand but by systematically oscillating between such vectors. When the archaeologist picks up a shard from what might be a vase or other object, the principal approach to the shard is that it must somehow connect to something else larger than itself. The pressure of its pastness, long or short, is a primary portal of signification. This is so even if the larger vase of which it is a part has not been fully assembled (or may never be, for that matter). Furthermore, the relationship is between not just shard and vase, but the shard and the larger cultural system of which it is assumed to be an aspect. Thus thereis a multilayered conceptual operation taking place in the mind of the archaeologist that proceeds by taking the shard as the nodal point not only of a material culture but also of a semiotic system that has to be aggregated from different elements. If the initial trigger for my exploration of Oxford Street was the impulse to read the street in the guise of a Benjaminian flâneur as well as through the deployment of a Lefebvrian rhythmanalysis, these were quickly subsumed under the more urgent charge of grasping the details of the street as a means of understanding the totality of Accra’s urban form in general. The details that one sees on Oxford Street all help us to understand the larger framework that is Accra’s urbanscape, yet each detail provides a different aspect or route to that framework. In the context of Oxford Street, I couple the notion of horizontality to that of archaeology to highlight the fact that every phenomenon to be perceived in Accra today, whether economic, cultural, or sociological, is (a) connected to other phenomena that may not appear in the first instance to be immediately related to it, and (b) has to be historicized both with respect to the specific phenomenon in question and in terms of the sociocultural relations of which it is an expressive fragment. Thus, my mode of contextualization is to situate apparently isolated phenomena within a larger relational framework, the ultimate objective of which is to draw out the mediated relations between different aspects of a potential totality. To establish the relations among what are apparently discrete elements on the street, each element will be seen in terms of multispatial and multi-scalar modes of articulation.12 While the principle of a horizontal archaeology will be illustrated in a variety of ways in part I, the most sustained attempt to engage with this principle will be specifically provided in chapter 4, “ ‘The Beautyful Ones’: Tro-tro Slogans, Cell Phone Advertising, and the Hallelujah Chorus,” where I focus on the veritable zodiac of tro-troslogans and inscriptions that proliferate on Accra’s streets. A connection will be made, on the one hand, between these slogans and the scripts of large-scale billboard advertising on Oxford Street and, on the other, to the popular songs, television programs, and other media that help to sustain this kind of urban street wisdom as part of the discursive ensemble of relays between tradition and modernity, and locality and transnationalism. The location of chapter 4 in part II, “Morphologies of Everyday Life,” is meant to act as a conceptual bridge between the strictly geographical concerns of the first part of Oxford Street and the more ethnographic emphases of the second.
Hence the chapters in part I will focus primarily on urban spatial evolution,with the accretions of districts and neighborhoods from the historic Ga Mashie area from the middle to the late nineteenth century onward being at the core of our considerations throughout. However, an additional and quite crucial spatial precept that will also cumulatively inform the chapters in part I takes all neighborhoods and districts as the spatial aggregations of social forces. It is these aggregations that have come to determine the dimensions of cityness in Accra today. To think of spatial aggregations of social forces requires us to interpret the dynamics of urban settlement from a different perspective than that of demography. For social forces are not amenable to brute enumeration; they must be understood as processes of both aggregation and fissure. While it is self-evident that Ga Mashie is largely a Ga ethnic enclave, that is not as significant an observation as the fact that there has been a steady differentiation between this enclave and the other groups that have progressively accrued to Old Accra and the Central Business District. To indicate the complex and differential character of aggregations and their connection to ethnicity and hybrid identities, I shall contrast Ga Mashie and Osu in chapters 1 and 3, respectively. The contrast is by way of exploring the status of two transnational and hybrid groups that have been central to overall Ga identity formation. These are the Tabon of Ga Mashie, and the Danish Euro-Africans (mulattoes) of Osu, both of whom have had a significant, if until now largely ignored, impact on Accra’s social character. An ethno-political nomenclature drawn from Ga sociopolitical realities—akutso (quarter), mantse (chief), and asafo (socio-military group)—will be read in both instances to explore how these two hybrid groups became Ga over a period of more than two hundred years, but without completely shedding their cultural hybridity. And in the process of their becoming Ga they also illustrate the different rhythms and temporalities by which Accra’s urban space may be further understood. The intervening chapter 2, on the other hand, attends to the colonial administrative function and its effect on the conversion of land in Accra from agrarian to urban usages.
Part II, under the rubric of “Morphologies of Everyday Life,” focuses predominantly on urban representations, with a decidedly ethnographic methodological orientation to the question of space making. As already noted, the ubiquitous and colorful tro-tro inscriptions will be the subject of chapter 4. In chapters 5 and 6 the social rhythms of the particularized spaces of the salsa dance floor and the gym will be used to highlight how the youth perform their inhabitation of urban space in contemporary Accra. Such urban spaces are inherently intersectional and open to the shaping dynamics of larger transnational processes that impinge upon them. Chapter 7 transfers the template of analysis into the literary domain, with the source of spatial examples being drawn mainly from the work of Amma Darko and Kofi Awoonor, but with wide-ranging references to other representations of Accra by Ayi Kwei Armah, Kojo Laing, and Martin Egblewogbe, among others. In this chapter my interest is in connecting spatial traversal (i.e., the ways in which characters literally walk or otherwise traverse the city) and the larger issue of sentimental education. For, as we shall see, the traversal from one spatial location to another, completely different location, is often a way of demarcating the terms of an existential crisis for the protagonist.
Two central questions additionally ebb and flow throughout Oxford Street: first, how do we speak of urban space in an African city when that space is overdetermined by seemingly contradictory spatial logics? And second,what are the mechanisms by which global capitalism and its transnational cognates produce a mimetic universalism of urban forms while engendering a split from the recognition of the inequalities brought on by this mode of universalism? Each issue requires careful detailing and interrogation. While the wide-ranging literature on globalization will be touched upon at various points, the concept is not going to be taken either as the demon of regress or the archangel of progress, but rather as the conduit for the production of a variety of contradictions that are seen to be manifest at the economic, cultural, and social levels and that raise implications for thinking about the urban space of Accra in a complex and nuanced way beyond its immediate designation as the capital city of Ghana. In the concluding chapter, I propose to situate Oxford Street and Accra securely within the discourse of urban studies of the developing world more generally. Here the question is whether, following Jean and John Comaroff’s Theory from the South, Cultural Anthropology (2010) and Rem Koolhaas’s disquisitions on African cities, we can argue that places like Accra hold portents about the “city yet to come,” to echo the title of Abdou Maliq Simone’s book.
My retelling of Accra through Oxford Street has been historically conventional in a number of respects while also wedding the account to a more idiosyncratic description. History has been present throughout in two interrelated ways. The retelling of the life of the city provided in this study has been a historical account tracing it from the arrival of the Gas from Ayawaso in the mid-seventeenth century through to the city’s variegated expansion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This largely chronological account has been anchored in a series of significant dates: 1680 (Akwamu defeat of the Gas), 1722 (the Danish school at Christiansborg), 1836 (the arrival of Afro-Brazilians), 1877 (Accra declared capital of the Gold Coast Colony), 1908 (outbreak of bubonic plague), 1939 (devastating earthquake), 1957 (Independence), 1979 (the bombing of Makola), 1992 (the Fourth Republic), among various others. The gallery of dates however provides only an ambiguous history, for much of the story here will also be relayed in terms of small- scale histories of say the Brazilians of Otublohum, the Danish-Africans of Osu, and of the tro-tro inscriptions, salsa, and gymming that I shall detail in different chapters. The variant temporalities of these microcosms do not run counter to the trajectory of the larger history but are what give it weft and form. The overarching narrative of a sequential history has thus only been made manifest via the retellings of nodal anecdotes that themselves represent an overlay of different temporalities and are meant to be cyclical in terms of the specifically human-interest dimensions that they repeatedly invoke as a central if concealed aspect of the largely chronological history of the city.
This, then, is a modest paean to the city I acknowledge as mine, but which I also recognize as the product of the past, as well as of the social, cultural, economic, and transnational changes that impact upon it. Accra’s transformation reminds me forcefully of the many parts of myself that have been lodged there, here, and elsewhere, but which come together in the retelling of this great African cosmopolis.
- http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/01/10/travel/2013-places-to-go.html?_r=0, last accessed May 15, 2013.
Originally published by Arcade: Literature, the Humanities, and the World under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.